The Jewish State of Irony

By Rabbi Tirzah Firestone

BOULDER, Colorado ~ Last week I was stopped in my tracks by a letter from Mira. The four-story apartment building next door to her home in East Jerusalem, home to seven families in the Beit Hanina neighborhood, was demolished before her eyes. Mira described watching border police, ambulances, fire trucks and police cars close off her street and surround Abu Eisheh’s house. They pulled out neighbors by force, beating those who refused to move and taking them to the hospital.
Home demolitions occur by the hundreds in East Jerusalem, and I have witnessed them with my own eyes. As a rabbi, appalled by Israel’s policy of managing Jerusalem’s demographics by destroying the homes of its unwanted residents, I have felt it was my duty to visit victims in the aftermath of their loss, paying condolence calls, as it were, to the bereaved. People like Abu Eisheh and scores like him are, of course, neither terrorists nor schemers, but simple people who have “built illegally” in a city looking to limit its Arab population.
While I am no stranger to such events, I nevertheless felt almost ill at the brutality described in Mira’s report. Overstuffed on news and opinion about the US presidential race and the Beijing Olympics this summer, this piece of news brought me back to the sensual memories — the smells, sounds and landscape of a neighborhood I know from my own visits to Jerusalem, and to musing about the limits of a just occupation, if indeed such a thing exists.
Beyond East Jerusalem, where Mira and her neighbors mourn, the Palestinian farmers look on silently as their lands are bulldozed to expand Israeli settlements, build Jewish-only roads, and complete the ubiquitous Separation Barrier that snakes through the West Bank. This summer, towns like Nablus, Jenin, Hebron and even Bethlehem, are locked down like ghettos, subjected to terror raids by night, and long, dehumanizing lines at checkpoints by day. I think of Qalqilya, a town of 45,000, with one heavily guarded gate through which thousands of occupants must enter and exit. Its sandy roads are swept several times a day so that soldiers can look for footprints to make sure no one has escaped.
Coming from a family of Holocaust survivors, I understand Israel’s desperate need for security. Yet I chafe at the incongruity of these images of occupation, and at the confusion that places Jewish security above many of the ethics that our ancestors struggled with their lives to uphold. I believe that the right to a secure and sovereign Jewish state is clear and must be unquestioned. But the means by which that security is achieved must not fly in the face of our noblest Jewish tenets.
When I travel to Hebron and hear that stones are handed out in the settlement store before the Sabbath so Israeli settlers can throw them at Palestinian children as they exit their school on Saturday; as I sit with my Palestinian friends, Hani and Rema, and watch their children play in an enlarged metal cage that protects them against settlers’ attacks; as I look out the window of the home of my Christian friends in Bethlehem and see yet another hectare of their olive orchards appropriated to the settlement on the hill — I have only one response. Choking with grief, all I can manage to utter is: I am so sorry. Please believe me, this is not Judaism!
I hope it is superfluous to state that in Judaism, the dignity of a human being is sacrosanct. Every human being, Jew and Gentile alike, is understood to be a creation of the Holy One. Therefore, the honor of the “other” is one of our highest values. He may not look like or act like you. He may be in your way, and even stand between you and your cherished plans. Nevertheless, “If a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not wrong him. But the stranger who dwells with you shall be to you as one born among you, and you shall love him as yourself; for you were strangers in the land of Egypt; I am the Lord your God.” (Leviticus 19:33-34).
What a bitter irony it is for a people who have lived as the homeless “other” for centuries to find themselves in the position of forgetfulness now. And so we must defend Judaism as much as we defend the Jewish state, for what is a Jewish state if the values being expressed by that state are not, in the end, Jewish?

Rabbi Tirzah Firestone is an author, psychotherapist and spiritual leader of Congregation Nevei Kodesh in Boulder, Colorado, where she is the founder of the Palestinian-Jewish Listening Circle.

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